The wheels at Nebraska’s largest record label, Saddle Creek, and its first cousin, Cursive’s 15 Passenger, spun swiftly in June, with both signing new artists within the past month, and the former releasing a new record.
Saddle Creek welcomed Kentucky-based singer-songwriter Sarah Beth Tomberlin, or Tomberlin for short, to the ever-growing Omaha label’s roster. With Tomberlin’s signing came the announcement of her debut LP, At Weddings — set to drop Aug. 10 — and the release of the album’s lead single, “Self-Help.” According to a Stereogum feature story, the first two non-religious albums Tomberlin owned were a Dashboard Confessional record and Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. Now on the label that pushed Bright Eyes to indie ubiquity, Tomberlin’s songwriting on “Self-Help” certainly calls back to Conor Oberst, most notably in her intimate approach, equal parts hopeful and as mournful as a Good Friday service. But she leaves enough spaciousness in the mix for her words to linger with the weight of smoke in the air after blowing a candle out.
Tomberlin’s addition to Saddle Creek’s lineup makes her the third new artist on the label in an uncharacteristically long string of signings, as Michigan singer-songwriter Stef Chura and Los Angeles post-rock band Young Jesus both scored Saddle Creek deals in November.
Like Saddle Creek, 15 Passenger, the upstart label founded by members of Cursive in early 2017, has been especially discerning in its hunt for new artists. For more than a year, Tim Kasher was the only musician signed to the label, that is, until 15 Passenger signed Chicago indie rock five-piece Campdogzz in late May. Cursive wrote on their Facebook page the day of the announcement that 15 Passenger would have waited as long as they had to until they found a band that “made [their] collective hair stand on end with excitement.” And based on “Souvenir,” the lead single from Campdogzz’s upcoming 15 Passenger debut, In Rounds, the label has good reason to be excited. The track steadily marches with a fuzzed-out bass riff and matching drums that recall Celebrity Skin-era Hole, but it’s frontwoman Jess Price’s vocal style — which actually shares much in common with the aching rasp of Saddle Creek’s Chura — that steals the show. The band has been around for close to five years with an LP and an EP under their belt, and In Rounds drops Aug. 3.
In more Saddle Creek news, the label released the second LP, You, Forever, from New York pop singer-songwriter Sam Evian, who joined Saddle Creek’s roster in 2016 and released his debut album, Premium, that year. That record was a nine-song collection of R&B-infused indie pop songwriting that — often sexy in its delivery, with Evian’s gentle croon and saxophone accents — served as a perfectly adequate summer pop album. But You, Forever, put simply, is altogether more realized as a body of work than Premium. On his new album, Evian stows the synth keyboard away in his closet and pulls out his acoustic guitar, which results in a record that sounds like a Sam Evian album, rather than a dime-a-dozen indie pop album. “Apple” opens with a fingerpicked acoustic guitar lick that Sufjan Stevens could have recorded for Carrie & Lowell, painting a serene landscape to surround himself as he sings of heartbreak-induced loneliness. And behind gentle guitar leads and a Simon & Garfunkel melody, album opener “IDGAF” glides down a rural highway away from responsibility. Female backing vocals accompany Evian on a handful of tracks and mix nicely with his boyish hum, which turns out to be one of the few traits carried over from Premium. But his songwriting is so much more adventurous and guitar-driven on You, Forever that it’s hard to compare his songs to the Portugal. The Mans or the Ra Ra Riots of the world anymore.
Another June Omaha release came from Centerpiece, the indie rock project led by Will Conner, the longtime frontman of now-defunct Lincoln melodic hardcore band No Tide. Centerpiece dropped its five-track, self-titled debut EP in May 2017, which saw Conner temper the punk intensity while still retaining some of No Tide’s vigor — think if Rise Against’s frontman went solo and released a New Pornographers record. But whatever muscle was left over on Centerpiece’s debut is long gone on their follow-up, Simple. Another five-track release, Simple plunges face first into sun-tinged pop rock as laid-back as resting in a hammock in a forest of scattered trees as wind rustles the leaves. Songs like lead single “Blue Marble” and “Let Her Tell You” borrow heavy inspiration from early-psych-era Beatles albums, and the title track emulates Pinegrove almost to a T. But each track features enough sharp songwriting from Conner’s years of experience that he takes the influences and implements them as styles all his own. Centerpiece celebrated the EP’s release on June 30 with a release show at Reverb Lounge with Lincoln indie ensemble I Forgot To Love My Father and Chicago rockers North By North.
Omaha group Dirt House made its debut in June, too, dropping the five-song EP Come Over on June 29. The new band, made up of songwriter Annie Dilocker, drummer Roger Lewis (The Good Life, Neva Dinova, Oquoa), bassist Miwi La Lupa, violinist Amy Carey Bishop and guitarist Jim Schroeder (David Nance Group, UUVVWWZ); tackles piano-driven baroque pop that feels both urgent and contemplative. “Don’t Stop” builds from a cascading piano groove and Lewis’ galloping drum rhythm into a crystal clear hook from Dilocker describing a goodbye scene as the narrator leaves a toxic relationship. And on “Down,” Dilocker longs for a love interest, but the instruments tell a different story, as anxious violin strokes and a minor key piano progression give the song’s otherwise youthful pining a more mature aura. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, and it suggests Dilocker might be an Omaha songwriter to look out for in the near future. Dirt House celebrated the EP’s release with a listening party at Hi-Fi House a week before the official release, and with a release show at the Slowdown.